A few Junes ago, after a bustling four-course dinner with freely flowing cabernet, my wife Ginger and I walk two blocks back to our hotel in Lille—an old industrial city and one of France’s biggest metropolises.
After Ginger gets ready for bed, I say, “I’m going for a brisk walk. If you’re asleep when I get home, I won’t wake you.”
She objects, “It’s drizzling. Most people have winter coats on. You’re nuts. Stay here.”
“Only fifteen minutes. I need to burn some energy off,” I say.
“If you must,” she says.
It’s raining harder than before and it’s gotten colder too. On my way back, just past the Wrung Out shop, I come across a homeless woman who has propped herself into a corner beneath the metal awning. Her face looks drawn, her nose is turned up slightly at the end, and her grey hair is combed back flat.
“You okay?” I ask.
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking,” she says, in clear English.
I sit down alongside her to see if she wants to talk. She claims that by profession she’s a translator and speaks six languages: French, English, Dutch, Flemish, German and Spanish.
“English is one of my favorites,” she says.
I get the impression she has a hearing deficit because I often have to repeat or rephrase whatever I say.
“Why’re you living on the street?” I ask.
“Six months ago something happened,” she says. “Someone stole my house. All I want is to get it back. I go to the court every day, but when I walk in, court adjourns. No matter what time of day, whenever I walk in, the same thing. Court adjourns.”
“Where do you live now?” I ask.
“I moved into a shelter three months ago. I needed an address where the courts can send me legal papers,” she says.
“Why aren’t you sleeping at the shelter on such a cold night?” I ask.
“You can live at the shelter only three weeks. Then they kick you out for a week. In two more nights, I can move back in,” she says.
“Who’s living in your house now, the person who stole it?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I’d like to know. It’s my house,” she says.
She’s covered by a plush-looking, two-layered, purple blanket. Behind her head, serving as a pillow, is a soft piece of luggage that contains clothing and personal items. By her side, she clutches a grey, heavy-duty, corduroy briefcase.
“I keep all my letters to the court and all the court’s responses in order,” she says, opening the briefcase to reveal six inches of legal papers, clean and neatly arranged. “I keep everything, but it seems I’m getting nowhere. The bigger what’s stolen from you, the harder to prove it’s yours and get it back,” she says.
Now and then, a passerby offers her cigarettes, food, or a coupon for a free meal. To offers of cigarettes, she says, “Merci, je ne fume pas.” To other offers, she says, “Merci, pas.” As I did, some passersby ask, “Est ce que tu vas bien?” One even asks her whether I’m bothering her and she answers, “Au contraire.” As we speak, I fill her right hand with coins of varied denominations. Without looking at them, she drops the coins into the side pocket of her briefcase and says, “Je vous remercie.”
I notice her nails are perfectly manicured and protected by a clear polish. She’s clean and doesn’t smell badly. In fact, she smells like a mix of lemon and thyme.
After 45 minutes, a big yellow van with “Sam’s Social” emblazoned on both sides in bold black letters pulls up. A man around 65 and a woman about 30 get out. They try to convince her to get up and come with them to their shelter.
She shakes her head, “I already have a shelter and can move back in two days from now. I don’t want to go to a new shelter and learn new rules.”
They try to cajole her into leaving with them. She remains recumbent and recalcitrant.
“I’d rather stay here and talk with this man anyway. Nobody in the shelter’s going to talk with me like he is,” she says.
The two people from Sam’s Social stare me down. The man asks, “What are you planning to do with her?”
“I plan to stay here with her a while longer,” I say.
Throwing up their hands, they move back toward their yellow van. I follow.
“Many street people refuse being picked up and brought to a shelter,” the young woman says. “Many shelters limit how long residents can stay. They kick ‘em out to teach self-sufficiency, then take ‘em back. We try to keep ‘em safe, but can’t do anything about the underlying situation.”
“She says her house was stolen. Whenever she goes to court, the court adjourns,” I say.
“Maybe so,” says the young woman from Sam’s Social.
Sam’s Social departs. We resume our interrupted conversation. She’s propped herself up with her back against the corner. Her pillow suitcase rests by her side. After 15 minutes, we get back to where we left off. It begins raining heavily.
“I’ve got to go. Stay safe,” I say, as I place the rest of the money I’m carrying in her hands.
“I’ll use this money to wash my clothes and to go to the post office to send things to the court about my house,” she says, distractedly.
When I get back to the hotel, Ginger’s still awake, worried and angry I took so long.
The next morning, at daybreak, we walk back to where I left the woman under the metal awning. The shops have yet to open, but the woman is long gone. Where she sat I find a sheet of paper weighed down by a rock. I slide the rock aside and read the following: “To the man who believed my story, thank you.”
Jim Ross,after retiring in early 2015 from public health research, jumped back into creative pursuits to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. Since then, he's published 35 pieces of nonfiction and over 100 photos in nearly 40 journals, including 1966, Cactus Heart, Cargo Lit, Change Seven, Entropy, Friends Journal, Gravel, Lunch Ticket, MAKE Literary Magazine, Meat For Tea, Panoplyzine, Pif Magazine, Plum Creek Review, riverbabble, and Sheepshead Review. Forthcoming: 2 Bridges, Bombay Gin, Palooka, Papercuts, Souvenir Lit, and Thin Air. Jim and his wife--parents of two nurses and grandparents of three toddlers--split their time between MD and WV.